BRUSH, Colo. – Local law enforcement agencies from eastern Colorado and several federal agencies will launch a task force to try and find out who is operating the mysterious drones seen flying at night in the area in recent weeks and their purposes.
Law enforcement from several county sheriff’s offices and local police departments from eastern Colorado and southwestern Nebraska met Monday with representatives from the FBI and Federal Aviation Administration to discuss the sightings and what can be done in order to identify who is behind them and quell unease among residents of northeastern Colorado and southwestern Nebraska.
Morgan County Sheriff Dave Martin hosted the meeting Monday in Brush and said he was impressed with the turnout for the meeting to establish the unnamed task force.
“The FAA and every other agency involved just wants to get to the bottom of this and find out what it is that people are seeing,” he said.
Federal authorities maintained at Monday’s meeting that they don’t know who is behind the drones and that the drones are not related to government operations. Though the meeting was closed to the press and public, officials said afterward there was still a question of whether the drones could be military-related, though no one can say that is the case definitively.
Phillips County Sheriff Tom Elliott said the main concern among law enforcement and federal officials is that someone could target one of the aircrafts from the ground by shooting one down, which could break laws, cause fires or lead to actual manned aircraft being shot at or shot down.
“It’s odd that it’s gotten this much life. And if somebody would just come forward and own it, we could put this thing to rest and we could go on to more important things,” he said. “The real concern with me is that someone’s going to get carried away and shoot down or shoot at a Flight for Life helicopter flying in and out of these hospitals. They fly very low and look just like a drone.”
Some of the areas where the drones have been spotted are along the flight paths into Denver International Airport, the authorities noted as well on Monday.
FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said the agency still had no clear answers on who was operating the drones, which have been described as being about six feet in length and have been seen flying in grid-like patterns in multiple counties in the past few weeks.
“We’ve contacted drone companies, we’ve contacted drone test sites, we’ve contacted companies who have waivers to operate throughout the area to see if they are the source,” Gregor said, saying they so far have not identified one.
In a statement after the meeting, the FAA said it had contacted FAA drone test sites, drone companies and operators allowed to fly drones in the area and had not determined the source of the drones. It said it had also contacted airports in the area to urge pilots to be cautious and report sightings and was discussing more ways to identify the operators.
"We take every drone-sighting report seriously," the agency said. "Multiple FAA divisions are working closely with federal, state and local stakeholders to determine whether the reported sightings in Colorado and Nebraska are drones and, if so, who is operating them and for what reason."
The local sheriffs said they had no timelines for the task force, but said they were taking every sighting and report seriously in order to hopefully identify who is behind the drones. Elliott said law enforcement authorities still have not identified any crime that the operators or drones have committed – just that residents are upset by the drones over their property and the mystery.
As of last week, the Colorado Information Analysis Center had also joined the investigation alongside the sheriff’s offices, FBI, FAA and Department of Defense. U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis have also both vowed to work to get to the bottom of the drone mystery.
Pilots are allowed to fly drones at night if they have a special waiver from the FAA but can face fines for flying without one. The CIAC said last week the drones are not flying in restricted airspace, however.
The FAA in recent weeks proposed a new rule that would require most drones to be remotely identifiable by the FAA and other agencies. The rule, if adopted, would allow for the agency to collect and store certain data of the drone and operator – such as the drones identity, location and altitude – and for local, state and federal law enforcement and other federal agencies to identify the drones flying in their jurisdictions.
The proposed FAA rule is open to public comment and feedback through March 2 before a final rule is possibly put in place.
As to how the sheriffs out east feel about the drones, they are puzzled and say they feel the unease from the residents they serve.
“I don’t think it’s silly. It’s causing fear, and that’s not funny,” Elliott said.
His office said Monday afternoon that the task force were looking for a command vehicle -- likely a closed box trailer with antennas or a large van that seems out of place -- in the area that could be the base for the drone operator or operators. The sheriff's office asks anyone who sees something similar to call 970-854-3644.